With James Wan’s The Conjuring opening next week, we’ll be bringing you all sorts of content from our set visit. The new horror film from the director of Saw and Insidious centers on the Perron family and their decision to bring in acclaimed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) when unexplained events start happening in their house.
During our set visit, producer Tony DeRosa-Grund talked about his longtime friendship with the Warrens, the decision to go with Wan, how close the movie comes to the truth and his own beliefs in the supernatural. Hit the jump for the interview with DeRosa-Grund and be sure to check out our set visit recap here, plus interviews with James Wan, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor. The Conjuring opens July 19th.
Tony DeRosa-Grund: About 14 years ago. I’ve known Ed and Lorraine Warren most of my adult life. Actually my wife and I were sitting in Lorraine’s living room with Ed and we were talking about stories that would possibly make a good movie. And Ed really had a laser beam focus on this one. He sat down with me and he played the tape for me of his original interview with Carolyn Perron when he went to the farmhouse for the very first time, and it was absolutely chilling. It was either black or white. Either this woman had severe mental problems, which she didn’t, or she was literally scared to death, which she was.
What we heard on the tape was just incredible stuff. And Ed would stop the tape and sort of give me his commentary about what he was thinking of what she was talking about, the stuff that was happening to her and it was absolutely phenomenal stuff.
How did you get to know the Warrens?
DeRosa-Grund: They had just done a MOW based on a book that a writer from The Scranton Times that I know had written called The Haunted starring Sally Kirkland that was an MOW over at Fox. And that’s how I met them, through the reporter.
So you had the rights to this way back when and it took this long to make it?
DeRosa-Grund: Well the rights went back and forth, a couple of different people tried to make it at different times, their life rights for television series. And I don’t think they had the right take because you really have to know Ed and Lorraine to really understand the way into this and I just don’t think people had the right take on this thing. It was only because of Chad and Carey Hayes and Peter Safran who brought them to the table and became part of this that we were able to really refine this to the point where it was a truly good and tellable story.
Is it straight narrative or is told with interviews? How does the story go?
DeRosa-Grund: I don’t want to give too much away. It’s really interesting and like I said, this is a true story. It’s a well-known story in New England. It’s so well known. On the flip side, Bathsheba’s gravesite became sort of a mecca and a destination for a lot of people that were practicing Satanists and looked at dark arts and things to the point where they had to move her grave marker. Like I said, it’s an amazing true story.
I actually had Carolyn Perron call me. She had decided after a while when we started getting into this project, Carolyn actually went back to the house after not having visited it for decades. And she called me from the house with the current owner Norma Sutcliffe and you could hear things breaking in the background. I said “What is that?” She said “There are plates flying off the shelves.” You can’t make this stuff up. So it’s an amazing story. I’m not one to drink the Kool-aid, but there are things that happen that can’t be explained, and this is one of them.
Carolyn was so affected by this that it was very hard for her and the sisters to even talk about this. Carolyn was very brave, put the narrative down, gave me the chronology in her own handwriting of what took place over the period that they were in here. And it’s just, it’s amazing stuff. I mean, these are people who were literally stuck in this house. Always the question with these movies is “Why don’t they just pack their bags and leave?” But Carolyn was drawn to this property. She bought it almost sight unseen, as close to sight unseen as you can get. She was drawn to it by an ad in the newspaper. Carolyn was drawn to it, Andrea – the daughter – didn’t want to move up there, Carolyn bought it almost sight unseen, put their whole life savings into buying this property. They were stuck. No one’s going to take a family with all these kids in. They were stuck there, they didn’t have a choice. They had to deal with it. And luckily for them, she found Ed and Lorraine Warren who were really their saviors through all of this.
Where was the real house based?
DeRosa-Grund: In Harrisville, Rhode Island.
And that’s where the setting for the movie is too?
Can you tell us why James Wan was the right choice to direct this?
DeRosa-Grund: I think James was the only choice for this. James has really the absolute correct sensibilities to handle this and be true to the story and scare the audience in unbelievably imaginative ways. He has just such a deft touch with this kind of material that there really was no other choice for this.
Does the narrative diverge at all from the truth as you heard it accounted?
DeRosa-Grund: A little bit, but not a whole lot. Not a whole lot. Part of what we do as a company at Evergreen because we dwell on this vertical of branded properties and true stories. And to me, having done this brand of properties for almost 25-30 years now is that if you move them too far to the right and too far to the left of dead center, you risk a backlash with your audience. And you just can’t do that. You have to be true to the story, you have to have integrity for your characters built into the script and if you don’t, then why bother doing it? Because then you’re not telling a true story. This is true as can be. Yeah, there’s small things for artistic license but the big picture and the big story, this is what happened.
This is a family that was scared to death that were physically imperiled by what took place up there. The dynamic between the Warrens and the church regarding this particular case is absolutely true. Lorraine is very happy with the story and the script and she is not one, if it diverges too much from center, then she wouldn’t be behind this. And she’s behind this 100%.
Is it difficult to set the tone with a story like this, when you’re not going for blood and guts, you’re going for a creepy…
DeRosa-Grund: No, I don’t think so. There’s all different kinds of scares and there’s all different kinds of sub-genres in these movies. In this particular kind, I think the mortal danger that this family is in lends itself to a different kind of scare. But I think it’s as compelling, if not more so at times than… The blood and guts are the low-hanging fruit. Like I said, James has the deft touch with this stuff. You have to really be at the pinnacle of your game to take this kind of material and scare the bejeesus out of your audience, and James is so so good at doing that.
Talking effects-wise, is it more important to try and be as practical as possible or did you have some room to do some things with CGI? So that there are things that you could do now that you couldn’t do when you first got the rights?
DeRosa-Grund: I think that always when you can use the physical effect, you’re better off. In this case, it’s more heavily reliant on the physical than the CGI for the scares. Sure at times, you’re going to have to do little things, but it’s not a CGI effect-driven movie.
I keep hearing about the witch. How does the witch play into this? Is it technically a witch or…
DeRosa-Grund: No, it’s a witch. It’s a witch. The way the story is told and I don’t know if the studio, I mean, at some point, we have that original tape from Carolyn Perron and Ed Warren in the interview, with Lorraine’s comments on it. The back story is this: Bathsheba Sherman was a practicing witch in her day in Harrisville, Rhode Island. She made a pact with the devil to come back as what she thought of as an ever-beautiful, ever-powerful demon in charge of a legion of other entities. Didn’t quite work out that way. But Bathsheba was a known practicing witch. And what happens is when her spirit comes back, and she lived in the farmhouse in her real life, and she comes back when this family comes in, it’s a question of wrong place, wrong time, and what happens to them and what ensues is a result of that evil and that anger that was Bathsheba’s in real life. And when you combine that with the fact that Bathsheba was a practicing witch…and when she hung herself, she cursed anyone that would take her land. So you can imagine that a family that moves in is viewed as a threat and literally, all hell breaks through.
Is there any fear of making a movie of that and rousing that kind of spirit?
DeRosa-Grund: I don’t think Chad and Carey Hayes will be embarrassed to tell you that they do not say Bathsheba’s full name. Lorraine has this philosophy that if you say a demonic entity’s name you give it power, and Chad and Carey are very respectful of that. They won’t say her full name. Watch what happens – don’t tell them I told you this – if you ask them to talk about the witch, they’ll say Bathsheba or Bathsheba S. They will not say her full name.
Have you and James talked about other films that provide an approach to handling this sort of material, a realistic approach to scares that inform this sort of movie?
DeRosa-Grund: I haven’t talked to James about that and I wouldn’t think that I would be the person to tell James how to handle this material. He’s just so incredibly gifted and he’s so focused that he sees this whole movie in his head, I can tell you that. His vision is so clear on this movie that you don’t need to tell James anything. He’s just, he’s got it. This is just going to be such an incredible movie when he’s done with it.
You said that you give power by saying the name. That said, you know, you hear stories from The Exorcist about creepy things happening. Have you had anything that could be questionable because you’re empowering the demon?
DeRosa-Grund: Well I said Andrea went back to the house to visit with Norma Sutcliffe who owns it now. And when she went there, there were dishes flying off the kitchen shelves. So I guess Bathsheba didn’t want Andrea back again. She didn’t like her the first time around and I guess her feelings didn’t change the second time around. But you know, I’ll tell you this. Ed and I were talking on the phone about it and we started talking about Bathsheba, and the phones all went static, they all went dead. When we played the original tape – and this is on the original tape if you guys ever have the opportunity to hear it – when he played the original tape for me, it wouldn’t work. You hear it on my recorder, and his recorder was an old 70s cassette recorder, he had just put new batteries in it before I got there, and he starts to play it and it’s dead. It’s deader than a doornail. This is not guerrilla marketing or anything, these are things that are happening that you can’t explain. It was deader than a doornail when he tried to play the tape back. And he says on it, jokingly, “Bathsheba, you’re playing games with me again, knock it off.” And you hear that on the tape. Ed was very confident in his own personal abilities in how he handled demonic entities and whatnot. I don’t ever recall Ed being scared in the sense that you or I would be scared.
But here on set, in the sense that you’re conjuring up the history here. Has anything strange happened on set?
DeRosa-Grund: You’d have to ask Rob [Cowan, producer] about that. Things happen on the set all the time, but as opposed to going bump in the night. I mean, they’ve had, well, equipment breaks and things like that, but that’s normal. But if something were out of the normal, you should talk to Rob about that a little bit more, he’d probably give you more about that.
How’s it working with kids on this sort of material?
DeRosa-Grund: These kids are phenomenal. The best group of child actors I’ve ever come across. They are professional, consummately professional. When you see them on the screen, they’re going to be unbelievable. The parents came up here for a set visit and they were really taken with the kids and they felt very good about the selection of the actors who were playing them and what they saw.
But are you shielding them at all from some of the harsher things in the film?
DeRosa-Grund: That, you’d have to ask Rob. I mean, they’re professionals. But you’d have to ask Rob.
Well it sounds like Bathsheba’s still around, the whole family’s still around. There’s not going to be some big bloodbath at the end of this movie. Not to spoil the ending, but how do you crack a narrative out of that that does have an ending when this is all still ongoing in a way?
How were Chad and Carey brought onboard?
DeRosa-Grund: Well, Peter [Safran, producer] knew that I had the project, it just needed a little tweak and a push. And Peter said, “Hey, I have these two writers who are great,” and Peter brought Chad and Carey on and it was the right fit, the right piece for the puzzle.
How much did James influence the script, since he’s a writer himself?
DeRosa-Grund: He’s got great notes. The notes from James are phenomenally insightful and helpful. You know, sometimes you get directors who their notes are not really on point, but James is just wonderful. His insights, and his understanding of the core material. He’s a fan of Ed and Lorraine’s. When James and I first talked about this, James knew as much about Amityville as I did, and I was bowled over that he was such a student of Ed and Lorraine’s life history. You guys know James does great stuff with this. James had read The Demonologist, which is the Gerald Brittle book which is the life story of Ed and Lorraine Warren. And he said it was the – and he used an expletive in there, you can find the quote online – he said it was the scariest book he’s ever read. And that says a lot, for someone like James to give it that sort of accolades.